The Death of John the Baptist – Matthew 14:1-12

Pastor Scott L. Harris
December 5, 1993

The Death of John the Baptist
Matthew 14:1-12

Last week I asked you the question, “How important is what you believe?” We found that it was very important because you reap the consequences of the actions you do based on what you believe and do not believe. Those consequences are both temporal and eternal. God has revealed Himself to all mankind through nature (general revelation) and the Scriptures (special revelation). When man fails to respond in belief to what God has revealed, then he suffers the consequences of that unbelief which is a life of futility and folly in this life and eternal damnation in the next. Even those who have believed God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ will suffer loss of joy and peace in this life to the extent they do not believe all that God has said and live according to it. It does matter very much what you believe and what you do not believe. (See: The Tragedy of Unbelief))

This morning I want to expand that question a bit. How much do you really believe what you say you believe? How much challenge to your beliefs can you take? Or stated another way, How much are you willing to suffer for your beliefs?

The material prosperity and ease of life we Christians have had in America has led us to an erroneous belief concerning God. This is not something most people would state they believe, in fact many Christians I am sure would state they believe the opposite, but when it comes down to practical living, most Christians live according to this error in their belief. That error is the idea that if I do what God tells me to do -, i.e. live according to His commandments – then God will bless me with a good life which includes material prosperity to at least some degree, decent physical health, and few troubles.

We say that we do not believe in the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel; yet we so often live and pray according to it. We expect if we are good to God, then He will be good to us – and we want to define what that “good” is. You say that is true of you? Then Praise the Lord, but before you sit on your laurels, consider how you really react when troubles come, your health declines, and your material prosperity is threatened.

In the text we are going to examine this morning, we are going to see the lives of two key men. In one man, we will see how stubborn unbelief can be. In the other man, we will see a wonderful example of faith. A man who was committed to what he believed, though it eventually cost him his life on this earth. John the Baptist became a martyr because of his righteousness.

Turn to Matthew 14:1 with me and follow along as we begin our examination of this passage.

“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus, and said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead; and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.'”

Herod the tetrarch is Herod Antipas who is the son of wicked King Herod the Great’s fourth wife, Malthace, the Samaritan. Herod the Great was the one that was reigning in Judea at the birth of Christ and who slaughtered all the boys in the area of Bethlehem who were two years and younger. Herod Antipas inherited many of his father’s evil qualities, but he only inherited part of his kingdom. After his father, Herod the Great, died in 4 B.C., Herod Antipas was made ruler over the regions of Galilee and Perea (the area east of the Jordan River – modern Jordan); his brother Archelaus is given rule over Samaria, Judea, and Idumea (everything south of Galilee and west of the Jordan River), and his half brother, Philip, is given rule over the areas North of Galilee.

It is a bit hard to understand how Herod could not have heard the news about Jesus prior to this time, but Herod Antipas was not very interested in Jewish affairs. His father was an Idumean – a descendant of Esau – and his mother was a Samaritan – a mixed breed of Jew and gentile. The Jews held him in great contempt and his disdain of the Jews was about the same. In addition, he split his time from being in his palace in Tiberias on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee and the fortress/palace his father had built in Machaerus which is about seven miles east of the northern end of the Dead Sea. Scripture does not record that Jesus ever went to Tiberias, so it is possible that between Herod’s lack of interest in Jewish affairs and not being in the immediate vicinity of Jesus’ ministry that Herod had not heard much about Jesus until now when Jesus’ ministry had gained much acclaim and His many miracles were demonstrating that He was from God – a mighty prophet at the very least.

Herod’s reaction in verse 2 gives us a hint about what we will see in him throughout the rest of this passage. He will believe what he wants to believe. Herod refused to accept the fact that there was someone new on the scene doing even more than John the Baptist. He rejected the possibility that Jesus was the Christ, and instead, Herod’s superstition and guilty conscience combined to persuade him that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. Luke 9:7-9 tells that this idea did not originate with him, but with others who influenced him.

Why would Herod have a guilty conscience? Because Herod was the one that had John the Baptist murdered. We are told about it in verses 3-11.

“For when Herod had John arrested, he bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. For John had been saying to him, ‘It’s not lawful for you to have her.’ And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they regarded him as a prophet.”

Stop a minute and let me give you the background here. John the Baptist had been thrown in prison by Herod Antipas because John was, as the grammar here indicates, repeatedly telling Herod that he was in violation of God’s law in having Herodias as his wife. Herod and Herodias were already in disfavor with the Jews and John’s accusations did not help. John’s rebukes stung them with the result that they wanted to kill him, but since they feared the reaction of the Jews, Herod threw John in prison.

Now John was absolutely correct in that it was unlawful for Herod to have Herodias – and the truth can make us very uncomfortable. Now listen closely, because the Herodian family is more bizarre than even a daytime soap opera. Notice first that verse 3 refers to Herodias as “the wife of his brother Philip.” Now this Philip is not Herod’s half brother Philip the Tetrarch, but another half brother by one of his father’s other ten wives. This is Herod Philip who had no rule. Herod Antipas had met Herodias on his way to Rome, he seduced her, and they then plotted to divorce their spouses and marry each other. That would move her up into the position of being the wife of a Tetrarch, one of Rome’s puppet rulers. She divorced Herod Philip and he divorced the daughter of Aretas, King of the Nabataeans to whom he was married. (This move later cost him dearly because Aretas took revenge because of the way his daughter had been treated and attacked Herod’s army and destroyed it. Only the intervention of a Roman army kept Herod alive and on the throne).

Herod and Herodias’ marriage was unlawful because God still considered Herodias to be Philip’s wife – as we have already noted in verse 3. In addition, their relationship was unlawful because it was against the Mosaic Law. Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 forbids a man from marrying his brother’s wife with the exception of raising children to a deceased childless brother by levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5). However, not only was Philip not dead, but Philip and Herodias had a child, Salome, whom we will see later in the story.

But there is yet a third reason that John told Herod that it was unlawful for him to have Herodias. It was incestuous. Herodias was the daughter of Herod’s half brother Aristobulus. Herodias was Herod’s niece which again brought them under the condemnation of the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 18:14). Herodias’ daughter Salome later followed in her mother’s footsteps for she later married her uncle, Philip the Tetrarch, and thus became her mother’s half sister-in-law and her aunt.

But aside from the bizarre nature of Herod’s family, note the actions of John the Baptist. Consider first that Herod was not Jewish and Herodias was only partly so. Did the Mosaic Law apply to them? Second, the Jews were not the rulers of the land, but Rome, and Herod was Rome’s puppet ruler. How could Jewish law be applied to him? Why then did John so boldly apply the Mosaic Law to Herod?

There are many today that make the same arguments about us as Christians trying to “impose” our morality on other people. That is a fallacy on two accounts. First, everyone seeks to promote their morality – or immorality as the case may be – on others by the advocacy of their practices. Christians do the same. But second and more important, we are not seeking to impose “our” morality, but instead to declare to all God’s morality. We do this both in warning that sin brings death and eternal damnation, and we do it in seeking to make life here better for all. Everyone benefits when the principles and precepts of God’s Word are followed and everyone suffers when they are not. “Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

This past week I received a reply from Eileen Hickey, the State Assemblywoman for many of us, in response to a letter I had written her concerning her pro-abortion and pro-homosexual rights views. In that letter she writes, “It is the role of the church to teach its’ cannons and precepts to its’ followers. Each individual has been given a free-will which they in turn use to determine what is right or wrong. I do not believe it is the role of government to interfere with ‘freedom of religion.'” Let me ask you; is she correct on the role of the church? Do we exist only to teach the Scriptures to those in the church? Or does the church exist as the body of Christ which is charged to take the gospel to every nation? Are we to declare the Scriptures only to those who will join a church gathering or are we to join in concert with all creation which declares the glory of God and displays His eternal power and divine nature? Are the Scriptures to be excluded from the public forum?

Let me ask you another question. Is she right on free-will? Is right and wrong determined by the individual or is it determined by God’s declaration of what is good and what is evil?

Let me ask you a third question. What would have happened if John the Baptist had behaved according to the Politically Correct ideas going around today and tried desperately not to offend anyone? Calling the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” was certainly not sensitive to their feelings. Or what if he behaved like so many of us who are so timid when it comes to confronting someone with the truth that what they are doing is sinful? If John had acted like so many of us do, then he would not have been thrown in prison and he would not have lost his head. But then he also would not have been God’s prophet either.

We need to follow his example of boldness in confronting the world around us. Should we be courteous, respectful, and tactful? Yes, and we should also make sure that we are never coming across as self-righteous. However, we also should never be shy about declaring the truth. You can be bold when you have the truth, but maybe that is the problem with many of us. We say we believe, but how much do you really believe what the Scriptures say? If you were threatened with jail for declaring what is righteous before God, would you continue to proclaim the truth, or would you back away? John’s goal in life was to serve the Lord, and if that meant imprisonment, then so be it. He would not compromise the message of the Lord and so he was put in prison. The righteous suffering at the hands of the unrighteous.

John feared God and followed Him. Herod feared everything but God, and it was only his fear of the people that he kept John alive. John was kept in prison for some time. This would probably have been at the fortress at Machaerus. The cells were in a dungeon far from any natural light and where the air would have been stale and rank. Here the prisoners would be chained to the walls. Mark 6:20 tells us that while Herod did not like John’s rebukes, he was perplexed when he heard him and “used to enjoy listening to him.” We can well imagine John trying to explain the Old Testament, his own role as the herald of the Messiah, and Herod’s need to repent for the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Herod could have let this arrangement continue for sometime, but Herodias was plotting how she might have John killed. Finally, the opportunity came. Look at verse 6.

“But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. Thereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. And having been prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’

This was not a birthday party as we think of them, and Herodias’ daughter, Salome, did not perform a ballet. Birthday celebrations in that age were entirely gentile and pagan. The Jews considered them shameful. It was common for Roman nobles like Herod to hold stag birthday parties in which gluttony, excessive drinking, erotic dancing, and sexual indulgence were standard fares. Herodias was so hate filled, vengeful, and immoral that she had no shame about sending her daughter in to perform a seductive dance and be leered at by these drunk and lecherous men as a part of her plan to have John the Baptist killed.

The plan worked, and Herod in his drunken and lustful stupor made a rash and foolish promise to Salome. Herodias then used this to fulfill her obsession to kill John and directed Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist to be brought to her.

Verse 9 continues the story, “And although he was grieved, the king commanded it to be given because of his oaths, and because of his dinner guests. And he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl; and she brought it to her mother.”

The plot was carried out. Herod fell into it, and then because of his pride and fear of what his dinner guests might think, he carried out the request though he knew it was wrong to do so. What a contrast between Herod and John.

Herod was a man confirmed in his unbelief. Like the seed sown by the side of the road in the parable of the Sower, Herod never comprehended what was being told to him because of the wickedness of his own heart. He would have known about all the events surrounding the Magi coming just prior to his father’s death with the message that a baby had recently been born “king of the Jews.” (See: Responses to Jesus’ Birth, Part 3). He would have known about his father’s response in murdering the baby boys in Bethlehem. (See: God Protects His Son). He was very aware of John the Baptist’s ministry of calling the people to repentance. (See: The Herald’s Message). He was specifically rebuked by John. He talked with John while he had him in prison. Jesus has been ministering in his own territory, yet Herod never went to see Him. When Herod finally did meet Jesus, his main interest was seeing Jesus perform some miracles like those he had heard about. Herod feared everything but what he should have feared – God. He feared his subjects, he feared other might take away his power – a fear later fulfilled when his nephew Herod Agrippa, Herodias’ brother, later usurps him and he is banished to what is now France. Herod feared his wife and his friends. He feared losing a reputation he did not even have. Herod believed lies, deception, and the thoughts of his own pompous pride. He did not believe the truth and he suffered all the anxiety that fear brings in this life and damnation in hell for all eternity.HTML clipboard

John was the opposite. He did not fear men or what they might think of him. He did not fear physical discomfort or even death. He feared the Lord and proved to be a faithful servant to Him throughout his life and even in his death. In verse 12, we find that John’s disciples gave indication of being the same way when they “came and took away the body and buried it; and they went and reported to Jesus.” They risked being identified with John though he had just been murdered, and they also followed John’s directions in following after the Messiah to whom they then reported. Are we ready and willing to do the same as John the Baptist?

John knew what he believed. He knew he believed the truth and he acted accordingly. What do you believe? Do you know it is based on the truth? Are you living according to it?

Life here on this earth is not about your physical comfort or pleasure. It is not about gaining wealth or amassing an estate. It is not about gaining power or prestige. It is not about having a lot of friends and having people think good things about you. It is not about obtaining fame – having many people know who you are and remembering you. Life on this earth is not about you, but if you think it is, then you will always compromise the truth to get what you want for yourself.

Life here on this earth is about God. He is the center of the universe, not us. He does not exist for our good pleasure, but we for His. Our egos do not like to hear that and our pride fights against it. But that is the truth. We can believe it or reject it in unbelief, but we will bear the consequences of that decision. If God were a tyrant this truth would drive us to despair, but God is not our oppressor. We exist for His good pleasure to be sure, but God loves us and He proved it in such a way that it can never be questioned.

God could have left us condemned in our sin and doomed to everlasting hell, and if He had done so He would have been perfectly just. Instead, we find that God loved us humans whom He had created and He found a way in which He could redeem us from our sins and bring us back into a relationship with Himself. That way was by Jesus, the second person of the Godhead becoming a man, living a perfect life, and then dying in our place on the cross. On the third day He rose from the dead, proving He had conquered sin and death and giving the hope of eternal life to all who believe in Him.

In a few moments, we are going to celebrate in the Lord’s Supper in which we remember what Jesus has done on our behalf. But before we do, I want you to think about the example set by John the Baptist and by Herod. Which one do you want to follow? Are you living for yourself or for God? Jesus did not come for His own benefit, but according to the Father’s plan and He fulfilled the Father’s purpose. Are you fulfilling the purpose for which God the Father created you? If not, you need to talk with myself or one of our church leaders today and let us help you start living according to God’s design.

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